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Don't Let FCC Cut Off Oklahoma Lifeline

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In a February 2, 2016 press release, Federal Communications Commissioner Ajit Pai called the continuation of Tribal Lifeline subsidies in Oklahoma a “legal scandal” and a “bloated tax payer subsidy.”

The Universal Service Fund is not tax based, but rather a federal subsidy program based on fees and designed to make services affordable to impoverished families. Enhanced Tribal Lifeline subsidies are designed to help those living on Tribal lands afford basic telephone service.

At issue is the map used to determine “tribal lands.” Mr. Pai’s objections are based upon the fact that the FCC will, at least for a short period of time, continue to use a map that includes lands that were historically occupied by Native Americans.

Mr. Pai’s knee-jerk statement implies that Tribes are somehow the culpable recipients of undeserved benefits. Mr. Pai's statements also suggest a misunderstanding of how the Lifeline program actually operates to assist all low-income families on Tribal lands, not just Tribal families.

Rather than acknowledge that the key reason for continuing use of the historic map is simply to enable the FCC to consult with Oklahoma Tribes before unilaterally eliminating important Tribal subsidies, Mr. Pai simply ignores the complex historical relationship between the federal government and Native Nations. The real scandal is not the continuation of certain benefits to those who live on Tribal lands, but Mr. Pai’s suggestion that the FCC should not have engaged in government-to-government consultations with Oklahoma Tribal Nations before unilaterally eliminating important legal rights. That action was the action initially taken by the FCC in redrawing the map that defines “former reservations” in its 2015 Lifeline Reform Order. This map sets the boundaries used to establish eligibility for enhanced Lifeline subsidies, an important subsidy for many impoverished Tribal members.

The FCC has acknowledged its failure to consult with Tribal Nations. Further, the FCC’s 2000 “Statement of Policy on Establishing a Government-to-Government Relationship with Indian Tribes” provides an established framework for meaningful Tribal consultations. The Commission recognizes, as Mr. Pai apparently does not, that the definition of “former reservations,” is an issue in which Tribes have both a vested legal interest and useful factual knowledge. Not surprisingly, consultation takes longer as the democratic process is slower than the dictatorial one. While the delay in resolving this issue may mean that some low income citizens may get enhanced Lifeline support for some period of time, that is a small price to pay for the recognition of Tribal sovereignty and the equitable treatment of Tribal members. Continuing to provide four additional months of enhanced Lifeline subsidies may benefit some who do not live on Tribal lands, as those lands are ultimately defined, but there is no reason to assume that the recipients do not need these benefits or that they are trying to scam the federal system.

The FCC should take the time and necessary steps to address their legitimate concerns in the program and genuinely target the true sources of fraud, waste, and abuse, rather than unilaterally eviscerating the cornerstone program that has brought communications to Tribal lands throughout the nation. Their map, and how they develop it, is important to be sure, however the actions of the carriers are at issue. How the FCC works with Native Nations to see that their programs and how these carriers function properly are of paramount importance to this issue and to the work of the FCC going forward.

Mr. Pai’s callous comments undermine the federal government’s commitment to consult with Tribes about the meaning of Tribal lands. Tribal lands are not colonies to be defined solely in terms of the short-term economic benefits of the federal government. Recognition of the rights of Tribes to be consulted about matters that affect their existence as a Nation and the economic wellbeing of their citizens is fundamental to our sense of American justice. As an FCC Commissioner, Mr. Pai should welcome rather than sneer at such a result. Instead he should join the call of more than eighty Congressional leaders to push forward the expansion and reform of Lifeline services that continue to benefit low-income families, especially those families across Indian

Country who remain among the most unserved, underserved, and vulnerable population in terms of universal service.

Loris Taylor is the resident and CEO of Native Public Media; Matthew Rantanen is the director of technology for Southern California Tribal Digital Village; and Susan Feller is the executive director of the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums.